A person like me has to be careful when he goes to the bookstore. He can’t just slop books into his cart and glide over to the register, he has to do his research. Because it is very easy to get burned. Like the time I borrowed Phillip Roth’s The Humbling from the library. I spent the next few weeks making retching noises and trying to get through erotic descriptions that were so terrible they were on the short list for the 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Award, sex scenes that made me want to buy a tube of lipstick, scrawl IT ALL MEANS NOTHING on the bathroom mirror, and wander the streets in silent agony. This is my characteristic response to a certain type of book I’ve run into many times over the years, a book which I refer to as Fond Memories of Vagina. The plot is always the same: “I am a writer in the twilight of my years, bored with life and my sexual powers. Oh, wait: pussy. I shall attain some. I am reinvigorated! Thanks, pussy!” This bores me and makes my entire lower half numb.
Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that has been written over and over again. A few months ago I picked up Fury by Salman Rushdie at a thrift store. I knew this was Fond Memories of Vagina on the first page. All of the descriptions of people are based on a specious understanding of contemporary pop culture: It’s written in the way older male authors try to imitate youth culture (GAWWWWD Tom Wolfe), shoehorning in references to THE LATEST TECHNOLOGIES which make them seem even more clueless than ever. (Your main character has a MYSPACE account? What is this, the War of 1812?)
The main characters of these books are all the same guy. He spends three hundred pages aggrandizing or belittling himself, but is ultimately the only fit judge of his self-worth and life. He is usually embattled, defending himself against the intrusion of silly, feminine interpretations of his behavior, lest he start making decisions based on the lives and feelings of others rather than his own childish needs. He blames everyone else for his problems, he is able to take women’s measurements on sight with eerie precision, but he’s not very good at sex. The decline of his libido is always a metaphor for death. ALWAYS. You get the picture.
And who are these women? Take your pick from the treasure trove of stock characters that the male sexual fantasy complex has fed us. There are high-powered, but emotionally brittle female psychiatrists, tragic young ingenues, naive female poets, the occasional innocent farm girl — her cow milking a not too subtle metaphor for what the protagonist wants her to do to his well-read, internationally acclaimed boner — with the smell of tulips about her. Let me ask you something, Older Male Authors of a Certain Generation: Have you ever been near a cow?
Both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Updike went underage, which is revolting. They were largely shielded from criticism by the male apologists of high art, who reject critical interpretations of literature that expect the writer to take his head out of his own ass once in a while and decide against loving descriptions of pedophilia. In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the ninety-year-old protagonist begins the book by ordering a young virgin on the telephone. Updike’s character in Toward the End of Time begins molesting a young girl for money. There seems to be a suspension of sexual morality in these books, built as they are on a rapidly deflating, and therefore desperately adhered to, sense that they are chasing HIGHER IDEALS. These ideals include the assumption that Fond Memories of Vagina is a book that needs to be written. Otherwise, we might forget that older men lust after younger women.
Let us call these books what they are: high-minded pornography. They are a way for Older Men of a Certain Generation to read a book about how sexy they are, how normal their neurotic tendencies are, and how easy it is to get young women to have sex with them. But they should not be labeled “universal,” as literature so often is. I am NOT talking about censorship. I am talking about the fact that these books won’t appeal to more than half of the population, and yet are marketed as if they written for everyone. If I decided to write a book about all the sex I wish I was having, I would have the sense to name it McKinley from “Wet Hot American Summer” Sends Garland a Sext or The Night Shia LaBeouf Didn’t Ruin It By Talking, not The Silent Quickening of Thomas Dupree. That would be misleading.
Wasn’t I supposed to be reviewing a book? Yes, The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis. The only book I’ve read of Amis’ is Time’s Arrow which I just adore. I haven’t read his most famous work, Money, because it was always checked out or missing from the library. The works of Martin Amis are the third most shoplifted books after The Virgin Suicides and The Bible. This man’s books are important to people.
The protagonist of The Pregnant Widow is a young writer in Italy named Keith Nearing, living with his girlfriend and her sexilicious friend. Amis sets as his task the summation of male-female relationships since the feminist revolution. Because feminism is something that is DONE to the main character, something that frustrates and traumatizes him, and leaves women flailing about for meaning in their lives. He makes IMPORTANT REVELATIONS:
The second item of business on the revolutionary manifesto ran as follows: Women , also, have carnal appetites.
Immemorially true, and now of course inalienably obvious. But it took a while for this proposition to be absorbed. In the no-sex-before-marriage community, the doctrine was that good girls didn’t do it for lust – and bad girls didn’t do it for lust either (they did it for fleeting leverage or for simple gain, or out of a soiled and cobbwebbed lunacy). And some of the young ones themselves never quite came to sober terms with it, with female lust.
I could shake any comment thread on the Beatdown about slut-shaming and get better writing than that. His prose is bloated and redundant, and is hard to remember, even while you are reading. But Amis is bringing something special to the table. He can cure you of the self-doubt and existential uncertainty of modern life, ladies. With his schwanz. Keith spends the entire novel whining that Scheherazade, a friend of his girlfriend, Lily, won’t bang him. THE NAMES, THEY ARE SYMBOLIC. He muses about sex, literature, women’s bodies, and lets hifalutin’, trite dialogue fall out of his empty, yapping head. In between these high points, Amis treats us to uninspired revelations coupled with free floating bits of trivia, delivered in a style meant to convey weight and gravitas, wrapped in zany, sexually transgressive antics. Which makes fully a third of this book legally a Chuck Palahniuk novel.
This passage is fairly symptomatic of these DEEP THOUGHTS:
Anticipation, looking forward, not as a passive state, but as the busiest and brightest of activities: that was youth. And the waiting taught him something literary too. He now understood why dying was for many centuries was a synonym for the completion of the male sexual act (And so live ever – or else swoon to death). In that moment, but not before, it was all right to die.
“The completion of the male sexual act?” That is the zenith of Amis’s powers? That was the least clunky phrase he could use to describe ejaculation? But it is clear he’s not looking to be concise; he is looking to distance himself from the penis. Women’s genitalia is granted lavish and florid attention, but the penis is referred to only in awkward metaphor. It is a “question mark that sometimes [becomes] an exclamation point.” Describing the penis with the same detail as the vagina would take our minds off of the female body, which we must be as willing and eager to plunder as Amis. These books aren’t just passive voyeurism; the author is quite sure you are as captivated and enthralled by his sexual powers as he is. These books always remind me of Christian Bale in “American Psycho,” rutting fiercely and eyehumping himself in the mirror. It makes you want to get involved, to tell Amis, “hey, guy, do you want to get a room to yourself and work all this out? Do I really need to be here for this?” Which is always how I feel when I read these books, because they are all the same book. The exact same.
Even I am not immune to the trend. You see, I’ve written a Fond Memories of Vagina of my own. I don’t have a lot of experience having sex with women, but I do know tech support. That’s all sex is, right? Fluid mechanics, carnal physics, the movement of hot bodies through sexy space. In closing, I give you a sex scene from my erectnological thriller, The Webmaster:
He inserted his male attachment into the female adapter, and watched his progress bar creep across the screen. The green line’s smooth rationality was undercut by the capricious time estimates that were careening wildly across the spectrum of likely endpoints. Five hours. Three minutes. Twelve minutes. A day. He thought of organized sports, for some reason.
Then, at last, the apex! The timer was counting down reliably from thirty seconds, the bar was filled with vigor. He hastened to his appointed destination, only to be distracted by a notification window (ERROR 739: FEMALE ORGASM NOT FOUND.) He felt his baud rate begin to slip. In a panic, he closed the window and pushed it from his mind. And then there it was: le petit écran bleu de la mort. He defragmented into a million bits of solitary pleasure.